Activation of upper airway muscles during breathing and swallowing

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2014 Feb 1;116(3):291-301. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00670.2013. Epub 2013 Oct 3.


The upper airway is a complex muscular tube that is used by the respiratory and digestive systems. The upper airway is invested with several small and anatomically peculiar muscles. The muscle fiber orientations and their nervous innervation are both extremely complex, and how the activity of the muscles is initiated and adjusted during complex behaviors is poorly understood. The bulk of the evidence suggests that the entire assembly of tongue and laryngeal muscles operate together but differently during breathing and swallowing, like a ballet rather than a solo performance. Here we review the functional anatomy of the tongue and laryngeal muscles, and their neural innervation. We also consider how muscular activity is altered as respiratory drive changes, and briefly address upper airway muscle control during swallowing.

Keywords: control of breathing; larynx; pharynx; respiratory muscles; swallowing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Deglutition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Laryngeal Muscles / physiology*
  • Pharyngeal Muscles / physiology*
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory Mechanics / physiology*
  • Tongue / physiology*